It’s called real world learning: pine nut pesto, bush tea and home kill. Bush Farm Education is taking kids out of the classroom and into nature.
The classroom is a place of puddles and hay bales, trailers and tractors. Today’s lessons – fire safety, edible mushrooms and the reality of home kill.
“Just imagine if every kid in Ōtautahi Christchurch, or even New Zealand, could have a day a week out on the farm, in nature, learning about it,” says Katie Earle, founder of Bush Farm Education on Lyttelton Harbour. “It would just be incredible.”
Incredible but unlikely. A Sport New Zealand survey in 2019 found that only 7 percent of children and young people aged five–17 met the Ministry of Health guidelines of at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity a day. Recent research by Ara Institute of Canterbury into education outside the classroom found a third of schools struggle to get students outside, citing time constraints, added paperwork, education regulations and health and safety rules.
Four years ago, disenchanted with her own children’s school experiences, Earle founded the education farm, a one-day-a-week outdoor programme complementing the school system.
“We get kids outside doing real world learning on the farm and in the bush,” she says.
Now it is one of a growing number of forest or natural learning centres around the world.
Once a week, different age groups come together for first-hand experience on the farm to learn about the natural environment, the seasons and where our food comes from. “They design their approach to the job themselves,” says Laura Beck, farmer and teacher, “which is always fun”.
On Wednesdays, from 10am to 2pm, the Little Guardians Ngā Kaitiaki ririki programme for four-and-a-half to seven-year-olds discuss fire safety, search out dry pine cones, manoeuvre a trailer and cheerfully tromp through puddles.
“The weather is never a problem,” says Earle. “The wet days are the best days.”
On Thursdays a group of seven-13 year olds are “our firekeepers,” says Earle. “Our ahi kā.”
When Frank Film calls in, they are having a science day, identifying the various bits of a recently butchered cow.
“If we get these kids learning from a young age about how inter-connected we are,” says Earle, “and having real life conversations around death and life and the cycles in between, we’re going to be raising completely different children who will be completely different decision-makers in the future”.
Eight-year-old Fergus Sherratt is not too keen. “I’m not a huge fan of seeing the insides of people,” he explains, “I’m more about seeing the outsides.”
Still, he is one of the first to touch the flesh – “It’s like jelly!” – and identify the oesophagus.
“Fergus is a bit challenged at school with reading and writing; he gets anxious in a normal school environment,” says his dad, Duncan. “This is like a breath of fresh air.”
Dropping off their children at the farm-turned-school gate, other parents are equally enthusiastic.
“It gives them that extra day to be themselves and be outside,” says Helen Alpe.
“And connect with the land as well,” agrees Nancy Coburn. “If you can do that from a young age, they have that for their whole life.